Port Clyde resident John Cotton caught his first bluefin tuna off Gloucester when he was still in high school. “That was 35 years ago. I remember bringing it in to the dock and the buyer asked me, ‘Is this the first fish you ever caught?’ And when I said yes, he said, ‘Now you’re history, you’ve got the bug now.’”
By his own account, Cotton has always been obsessed with fishing, even from an early age, when he would come to St. George in the summer with his family. He’s been a full-time resident here—and fisherman—since 1991.
“Like anything, commercial fishing is up and down, but the last five to seven years have been very successful for me,” Cotton says. “Mainly this is because of my experience, but the government has also helped a lot by banning mid-water trawlers, keeping them 50 miles out and further. So the herring are allowed to come in and spawn and proliferate without getting beaten up and harassed, so that has really changed the fishery.”
Cotton acknowledges that most bluefin tuna stocks worldwide have been overfished, but changes such as this are having a positive impact. “The whole key to bringing back the tuna is the herring.”
Cotton explains that each area of the ocean has a specific bluefin tuna population. “The eastern Atlantic population runs from Iceland down to Africa. Ours is called the western population, running from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada. We’re at 70 percent of the target level of what it was in the 1960s.”
Cotton notes that it is the Pacific bluefin stock that is most severely depleted by overfishing. Just recently, however, a National Public Radio report announced that the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission and the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission have agreed to take steps to rebuild the population to 20 percent of historic levels by 2034, a sevenfold increase from current levels.
Regulations designed to help prevent overfishing in the Atlantic have been in place for several years. “The Atlantic Bluefin Tuna Council, made up of fishermen, and the National Marine Fisheries Service come up with the quota. Currently we have 500 or so metric tons of quota from June until the quota is caught, usually by November. The quota applies to the entire catch of all the boats fishing for tuna. I have to report my catch and the buyer has to report my catch within 24 hours.”
With the advent of air freight, Atlantic bluefin tuna could be sold to Japan, where the demand for sushi-quality tuna is great. Today, Cotton says, the market is now half Japanese and half domestic. “On average we’re making about $5 a pound. Five years ago it was $7 to $10 a pound, but now, since there are so many people fishing and the stocks are coming back, the price has gone down.”
If selling to the sushi market is your goal, Cotton explains, “the way you catch the fish is the most important thing.” Cotton and the man who crews for him each use a rod and reel. “Now that there are more tuna it is easier to catch them because there are more competing for food so they will bite your hooks sooner.”
In the spring, when the tuna first show up, Cotton says they have no fat in them—what is called “red meat” fish. These are less valuable to sushi buyers. But as the summer progresses they fatten up, depending on how much food is available. “If you catch one and it is full of fat you have to be very careful how you catch it because if you fight the fish it fills up with adrenalin so the meat is full of lactic acid. They call it ‘burnt,’ so that is not good meat. So you need to ‘swim’ them to allow the lactic acid to dissipate before you kill them. That is the meat that our customers—and chefs—want. You get a reputation—oh that’s Gulf Traveler’s fish, we want that.”
Cotton’s boat, Gulf Traveler, is a 1979, 43-foot Canadian boat with an old, very loud, diesel engine. “A lot of tuna fishermen are in million-dollar boats,” Cotton says with a laugh. “They see us coming in with fish and scratch their heads. There are probably 10 guys at the most in New England who make a living from bluefin tuna and I’m one of them. Most who fish for them do it for fun—it’s a big thrill, it’s on their bucket list. But everything they catch takes away from the quota. You hear about these ‘million-dollar’ fish, but that is just a once-a-year stunt.”
While Cotton has relished the challenges of bluefin tuna fishing, now that he is in his mid-fifties he has begun exploring alternative options for creating a livelihood. He’s already been line catching ground fish, which he sells to Port Clyde Fresh Catch and to a handful of local restaurants. But a path he and his wife, photographer and yoga instructor Antonia [Toni] Small, have begun pursuing together is raising oysters.
“Our lease is in Ice House Cove,” Cotton says. “We are farming in colder water than most. We have 40,000 oysters that are a year old and 40,000 more that we got this year. It takes 18-24 months to get a mature, sellable oyster. We are growing half in the traditional way of floating them in summer and fall then submerging them to protect them from the cold and the ice. The other half we’re growing in the intertidal zone, so they are out of the water two to three hours a day—some people think they grow faster that way.” He says the next step will be to transition from one-year leases to a 10-year lease and “to ramp up the number of oysters.”
Cotton notes that he and Toni were fortunate to have help setting up their aquaculture venture from a friend of Toni’s who is heavily involved in the industry. “She helped us with all the paperwork. Otherwise we would have needed a lawyer, it’s that complicated.”
Cotton says that Maine is becoming big in aquaculture because of climate change. “The water further south is too hot. Seaweed is also big. We’d like to grow nori, which is in great demand. Also kelp, which we can grow with the oysters. We’re just kind of going along here seeing what will work.”—JW
PHOTOS: Antonia Small